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Criterion 3: Let’s Begin at the Beginning

A New but Classic Text

We are reading through Lewis Ayres’s Nicaea and its Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2004). Our goal is to read this relatively new but still classic text on the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy with intelligence and understanding. The impetus for our pilgrimage is the recent broadly Reformed internecine conflict on the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the Trinity (in se or ad intra). While this is the occasion for choosing this text as our first book it will not inordinantly control our reading. We will sometimes move through the book at a snail’s pace and sometimes at breakneck speed (well, maybe).

In the last post we had a brief overview of the book so that we can now delve into the text with abandon. There is no better place than to begin at the beginning. That is, there is no better place once we have read the back of the book cover and the inside flaps, have perused the contents pages, looked at the bibliography and indices (ok, indexes too!). Once we have fanned the pages to get a sense of the whole we can begin.

Point of Departure

The first chapter is titled “points of departure” (11-40) and we will be covering the first five pages (Lane Tipton is my hero!). In this section Ayres wants to line out what he is doing and how he is doing it differently than others who have gone before. This is such an important concern that Ayres devotes the first ten chapters of the book to getting the historical and theological context right. It is not simply that the controversy was a matter of Arius being bad and Nicaea setting the record straight for all time. That is simplistic and not at all helpful. Real history is more complex or complicated than that. This is not to suggest, as far as I can tell, that Arius was somehow a good guy. But the author wants us to get to know all the textures and strands that go into the fabric of the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy. This matters to us because we Reformed folk are catholic in the best sense of that lower-case word.

The context I was speaking of is what Ayres calls a “theological culture” (12). He tells us that this theological culture was a combination of doctrinal propositions and strategies for using the doctrines. We could say that the controversy drove the church to develop a theological grammar. That is, the church developed a way of talking about the Triune God through the rough and tumble of theological debate. Ayres puts it this way:

It is now a commonplace that these disputes cannot simply be understood as the product of the Church’s struggle against a heretic and his followers grounded in a clear Nicene doctrine established in the controversy’s earliest stages. Rather, this controversy is a complex affair in which tensions between pre-existing theological traditions intensified as a result of dispute over Arius, and over events following the Council of Nicaea. The conflict that resulted eventually led to the emergence of a series of what I will term pro-Nicene theologies interpreting the Council of Nicaea in ways that provided a persuasive solution to the conflicts of the century (11-12).

Real History is Complex

By stressing the complexity of the era Ayres seeks to consider not only the myriad differences between various theologians and theological parties, but also what ways of thinking and what propositions they may share in common (13). This seems to me to be a basic historiographic necessity. In order to properly interpret and understand a document from another era we must seek to understand as best we can both the uses of language (especially if we detect technical terms) and the historical setting. Expressions can become settled at a later time that are more fluid at an earlier time and we err when we read the later more settled meaning back into the more fluid usage if that is the case. A more recent example would be the use of the words regeneration and sanctification in the Reformers and post-Reformation eras. As best as I can tell from my own reading of John Calvin and some of the scholastics, these words overlap considerably and do not have the later settled significances we are accustomed to. Calvin can speak of sanctification occurring before justification. That may be the result of his twofold blessing understanding of the benefits of redemption and it can be the result of sanctification being used here in a sense that covers what we now refer to as regeneration. This sense is sometimes conveyed in the expression “sanctification begun.” And regeneration can be thought of in terms of an ongoing lifelong work of the Holy Spirit. So you see a fluidity in technical terms that are more settled in our time. Sensitivity to this difference and development is a must when reading older texts.

Here is Ayres’s summary of the traditional understanding of the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy:

Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine, initially provoked by a priest called Arius whose teaching angered his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Eventually, this traditional account tells us, the controversy extended throughout the century—even after the decisive statements of the Council of Nicaea—because a conspiracy of Arians against the Nicene tradition represented particularly by Athanasius perpetuated Arius’ views. Even when the century is understood as one of evolution in doctrine, scholars continue to talk as if there were a clear continuity among non-Nicene theologians by deploying such labels as Arians, semi-Arians, and neo-Arians. Such presentations are misleading in two very important ways (13).


Before we look at Ayres’s reasons for suggesting the traditional account is misleading, I want to note what he is getting at. Ayres is saying that this controversy was not about settled theological parties simply warring with one another. There was movement, misunderstanding, and conventional ways of thinking and formulating doctrine that fluctuated. It was not a matter of development as neat straight-lined progress. Is Ayres dissenting from the view advocated by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his essay on the development of doctrine and elsewhere? These comments toward the end of the book suggest this may be partially so:

Over the last two hundred years these questions have been faced through a variety of theories of doctrinal development. The emergence of these theories is in many ways another part of the story of modern theology’s appropriation of Hegelianism and Romanticism. This can be seen most clearly in the ways that such theories have tended to use ‘vitalist’ metaphors likening the development of doctrine to the growth of an organism. It is frequently noticed, of course, that the theories of development seen in the nineteenth-century Tübingen school and in such figures as John Henry Newman are attempts to hold together the reality of growing attention to historical development with the need to show the continuity of Christian teaching in a Catholic context. Those theories that were not broadly vitalist in this way (especially Thomist models from the first half of the twentieth century) have tended to work on a rationalist model in which the earliest deposit of Christian faith was seen as the foundation for the developed faith of later centuries, broader propositional content being slowly deduced from logical principles. In liberal Protestant contexts development could of course much more easily be seen as a basic story of departure from an original kernel or the carrying of that kernel through history with various accretions (426).

Ayres is not dealing merely with the nature of developmentalism (organicism in 19th century terminology) in that it was often viewed as the movement from the acorn to the oak tree. Ayres, as a Roman Catholic, desires to hold together a historical sensibility and a trust in sacred texts and their interpretation by revered theologians and biblical scholars. These are not questions limited to Roman Catholics with their views of the relation of Scripture to tradition which we as Protestant Reformed folk would dissent from. The question of the nature of doctrinal development and the relationship of Scripture to tradition is a live issue for us as well. I am not sure we need to set the logical deduction of doctrine by good and necessary consequence from Scripture against a robust recognition of the complex nature of the historical development of doctrine. How else would one be able to assess whether historical changes in doctrine are in fact advances and not backtracks or other kinds of errors? I doubt Ayres would advocate the pitting of reason against historical understanding unless he assumes rationalism and/or historicism. That is, rationalism is the idea that the human mind can determine all reality without divine revelation. Sir Arthur Eddington once said “what my net can’t catch ain’t fish.” That is unvarnished rationalism. Historicism is the view that all of reality can be reduced to the historical setting in which some text was written. It tends to be anti-supernatural and there is no room for divine activity. History is the record of human activity only. Ayres is clearly critical of the influence of Hegel on historiography. That is certainly salient. Hegel (and Romanticism more generally) viewed everything (so it seems) through the lens of gradualism/developmentalism/evolutionism. We will return to this when we come to the end of the book. Just remember that this is one of Ayres’s concerns throughout the book. Historical development is often a two steps forward, one step back kind of experience (or more realistically, a one step forward and two steps back reality).

Back to the two reasons why the neat and clean view of doctrinal development as applied to the fourth-century Trinitarian conflict is misleading. The first reason this approach is misleading is that it treats the Arians as a cohesive party (13). As Ayres points out, many painted with the label Arian protested their ignorance of his writings. These theologians may have shared common characteristics unrelated to any connection with Arius. We shall see. The second reason why the organicist reading of doctrinal development errs with regard to this controversy is that it was not a simple dispute over whether Christ was divine (14). There were different ways of understanding this question and it is arguable whether this was even a major question in the overall controversy. So says Ayres.

Theological Grammar

Ayres offers a helpful definition of grammar: “a set of rules or principles intrinsic to theological discourse, whether or not they are formally articulated” (14). This is a key to properly assessing the meaning and significance of a historical text or artifact. One example of this is that there was the possibility of understanding degrees of deity. A theologian might argue for the Son as God but not as “true God” (14). Sensitivity to these realities makes our investigation more realistic and accurate. We ought to aim for accuracy in understanding texts. I do not buy into the postmodern reader response theory approach to handling texts. Texts have authors and authors intend to communicate something. This is not to ignore the fact that sometimes human authors fail to adequately convey their meaning. Sometimes traditions of misunderstanding arise and gain hegemony. Scripture is free of the failure to communicate because of divine inspiration (this says nothing about adequate spiritual receptivity as that is a different matter).

Going Forward

Ayres sets out to discuss the origins of the Trinitarian dispute along the following lines which will be unpacked over the next several posts: (1) Ayres will consider events involving Arius up to the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325. (2) Ayres will then consider the theological legacy of the church father Origen. (3) Then Ayres will examine the exegesis between the time of Origen and the late fourth century. Finally, (4) Ayres will look at the varieties of theological trajectories existing in “tension” when the fourth century commenced (15). Ayres wants to relativize the importance of the first point (the traditional interpretation) along the following lines:

One of my goals in offering this fourth point of departure is to relativize the first: the controversy surrounding Arius was an epiphenomenon of widespread existing tensions and understanding those tensions is essential to understanding how the controversy developed in the decades that followed (15).

Perhaps another way to say this is to say Arius has become a convenient catch-all symbol of the tensions that existed in the church of the fourth century. The tensions were apparently there whether Arius had happened upon the stage of history. Or we might say that Arius reflected theological sensibilities already in place or in development before his time.

This will be a very interesting study. I hope you all are able to follow along. As I said on another occasion, this is a dense book. We are dealing with texts written in an age other than our own (yes, Charlie Dennison, I know we live in the same redemptive historical age as the fourth-century church fathers!) and it is easy to gloss (and here I have absorbed the special meaning of the word “gloss” held by one of my august seminary professors who shall remain nameless-to gloss a text is to read it in a facile manner) texts from another culture and language and historical context.

In my next post I will begin to look at the four points outlined above.

I dedicate this post to my most favorite Christian blogger of all time—Lane G. Tipton.


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